Desperately Seeking Cormac

With the release of his latest novel, Cities of the Plain, Cormac McCarthy’s fans are back in the business of parsing his sentences, probing his personal life, even looking in his garbageÑwhatever it takes to understand the fiercely private El Pasoan. Here’s what they’ve found.

Melville (his favorite book is Moby Dick) to Faulkner (whose editor, Albert Erskine, was McCarthy’s at Random House), from Flannery O’Connor (who was also raised Catholic in the Protestant South) to Hemingway, Joyce, Dickens, and Homer. When he lived in Tennessee, he wrote about dispossessed mountain loonies like Lester Ballard and lost river cynics like Cornelius Suttree; when he got to Texas, he wrote about stoic, unsatisfied cowboys like John Grady Cole and Billy Parham.

McCarthy may not be a native Texan, but he set out to learn as much as he could about the state when he arrived in El Paso 22 years ago. He researched Blood Meridian exhaustively, visiting every location he wrote about and learning Spanish, which shows up extensively and untranslated in all four of his westerns. He doesn’t write about Texas so much as he explores the borderlands between Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico. His characters are always crossing between two worlds: the normal one and the underworld, the violent natural one and the violent man-made one, the seen and the unknown.

In Fact, Just Don’t Call Him

CONTRARY TO POPULAR WISDOM, McCarthy is not a recluse. But he is and always has been an intensely private man and a reluctant public one. Annie DeLisle recalled in 1992 how when they lived in the converted barn in the seventies, “Someone would call up and offer him two thousand dollars to come speak at a university about his books. And he would tell them that everything he had to say was there on the page. So we would eat beans for another week.”

In El Paso McCarthy has a circle of friends, goes to parties (though he quit drinking alcohol when he moved there), and is, according to one local, “very congenial.” Richard B. Woodward, who conducted the 1992 Times interview, found him to be “an engaging figure, a world-class talker, funny, opinionated, quick to laugh.” Betty Ligon, who was a columnist for the now-defunct El Paso Herald-Post, says he’s “cordial, even if he’s wary of the press.” But not everyone is taken in by the McCarthy mystique. El Paso writer Debbie Nathan scoffs at how he won’t read at local literary festivals and won’t sign one of his books for a fan out in public, yet the Ecco Press will sell autographed copies of The Gardener’s Son for $175 (unsigned copies go for $22). “He won’t take the most minimal role in the community,” she complains.

He’s Eligible for Medicare

MCCARTHY TURNS 65 THIS MONTH. He is an avid golfer and pool player, likes to restore old pickups, and loves science. Ligon says that when she sees him out at a restaurant, he “always has a pile of reading material with him: research books, how-to manuals, books about mechanics, and always a New York Times.

And this spring he got married again, to Jennifer Winkley, who has a degree in English and American literature from the University of Texas at El Paso; she turned 33 this summer. They work out together at Gold’s Gym. Gossips say she’s pregnant. Other recent rumors had McCarthy leaving his little stone house on Coffin Avenue and moving to Alpine, or Albuquerque, or Spain. But he just bought a new home in the upscale Coronado Country Club area, high up on Franklin Mountain, overlooking the lights of El Paso and Juárez.

Desperately Seeking Cormac

RICK WALLACH IS LIKE MANY MCCARTHY fans whose lives were changed by the writer’s books. He discovered them by accident one night in 1991 when he happened upon a copy of Blood Meridian and didn’t put it down until he had finished it the next day. Wallach began proselytizing and pushing McCarthy’s books on friends, and he helped organize the first national conference on McCarthy in October 1993 at Bellarmine College in Louisville, Kentucky.

The Cormac McCarthy Society was formed in 1995 to help organize the fall gathering (which has been moved to UT—El Paso) along with spring and summer conferences on other campuses. “The range and variety of people who show up are stunning,” Wallach says. “We get a bunch of fans, not just academics.” With the release of Cities of the Plain, the number of papers and attendees for “Cormac McCarthy: An International Colloquy,” which comes off October 15 to 18, has shot up. “This year,” says Wallach, “we’re expecting people from Australia, Europe, and Asia.”

Many members of the Cormac McCarthy Society met through an Internet site put up in 1995 by Marty Priola. The site ( www.cormacmccarthy.com) is elaborate, with pages titled “The Textual McCarthy,” “The Intertextual McCarthy,” and “The Audiovisual McCarthy.” Scholars and fans parse his books and his past and argue about whether McCarthy is “a mystic” and whether Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden could be based on Holden Caulfield (the character created by the reclusive J. D. Salinger) or maybe actor William Holden (who led the gang in The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah’s legendarily violent western).

Accompanying this year’s conference will be an exhibit of fifty paintings of McCarthy’s house on Coffin Avenue. New York writer and painter Peter Josyph was struck by the house a couple of years ago when he was in town for the conference. He drew sketches, took photos, flew back to Long Island, and got busy. By the time he was finished, he had completed nearly one hundred renderings of McCarthy’s home on handmade Mexican paper. “His house became an image for how I feel about him, his work, the West, and writing in general,” Josyph says. “Ultimately, it’s about any writer who takes his work as seriously as he does.”

The Trash Aesthetic

IN EL PASO MCCARTHY HAS BECOME A GHOST CELEBRITY, an urban legend. Last year Rafe Greenlee, a political consultant and McCarthy fan who was then living there with his wife, filmmaker Mylène Moreno, shot footage for a movie about McCarthy, including some of him taking out his trash. What does an artist owe a community, they wondered, and what does a community owe an artist? They

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